Updated: May 8
The "oldest profession" was one of the first to go West to the frontier, following the first mountain men, loggers, prospectors, and homesteaders. Frontier prostitutes had many names: soiled doves, painted ladies, sportin' women, prairie nymphs, fancy ladies, calico queens, ladies of the night, Saloon Sallys, Bawdy Bettys, and--sorry about this—Hokey Pokeys (a name that later became a popular American children's song)! Many young women chose prostitution as the sole means of escaping their existing poverty, disease, and sexual abuse in "civilized" society.
Some joined "bawdy wagons" going West, since they could not afford the cost of travel in wagon trains. Traveling circuses, freak shows and vaudeville shows also had brothel tents. Prostitution ranged from lavish parlor houses run by madams, usually in larger cities with affluent clientele, to saloon girls, to horrific "cribs," one-room shacks or rows of cells at the outskirts of town, where women served up to 15-20 men daily at a cost of 25¢. The cribs were the last stop for many prostitutes who died young of syphilis, botched abortions, drug overdoses, suicide, or murder.
The average age of a frontier prostitute was around 23 and few lasted beyond their 30s. In the late 1850s, condoms and diaphragms were available but too expensive for most prostitutes. Herbal abortifacients such as pennyroyal, tansy, and cotton root, as well as drugs such as "female pills," "regulator tablets," and "preventative powders" were used to induce miscarriages. But they could be deadly.
A small percentage rose to wealth and prominence as successful madams, some married and some saved enough money to homestead or move on to a more viable career. The majority ended in destitution. The conditions of Chinese prostitutes of San Francisco's Barbary Coast opium dens and brothels were especially shocking, as this 1871 Alta California newspaper article relates:
"Stretched on the floor of this damp, foul-smelling den, are four miserable wretches, the victims of the most fearful and loathsome disease [that]… has cursed sinful humanity... Incurable and refused admission to the public hospital, they lie dying by inches, a slow, lingering, horrible death. One of them, at our request, lifts from her face a cloth. In place of mouth, lips, cheeks and nose, we see a horrible cavity, formed by the eating away of the flesh until the bare bones are exposed, the grinning effigy of death's head. We rush from the room....Thus ends our long night's "Cruise on the Barbary Coast."
PHOTOS: (Top left) Mary Katherine Haroney, known as "Big Nose Kate," was Doc
Holliday's longtime lover, then wife. She broke him out of jail in 1877 by pulling a gun on the guard. (Top right) Prostitute Sallie Sampson, known as "Teacup Sallie," in Dodge City, Kansas, 1876. (Bottom left) Pearl DeVere was a successful madam in Cripple Creek, Colorado, during the gold rush. She was loved for her philanthropy and treated her girls very well. When she died in 1897 at age 35 of an accidental morphine overdose, she was given the most lavish funeral in the city's history. (Bottom right) Chinese prostitute/slave in San Francisco's Barbary Coast in the 1800s.
"Soiled Doves" was originally posted May 23, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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